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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter II


1793—1805

Edinburgh University—Lodgings in Hamilton’s Entry—New Hailes and Lady Hailes—Companions—Sunday Morning Breakfasts—Scott, Jeffrey, Clerk, Erskine— ‘The Exigencies of the State ‘—Alexander Nasmyth—Lessons in Painting— Completion of Divinity Course—Licence by Presbytery of Ayr—Ordination at Daily—Marriage—Rev. John Ramsay of Kirkinichael—Reminiscences-—Close of Ministry at Daily—Presentation to Duddingston.

JOHN THOMSON’S student career was largely influenced by that of his brother. He attended Glasgow University in 1791-92, but the change of Thomas from divinity to law, and his con-sequent settlement in Edinburgh, led to John’s removal from the city of St. Mungo in the following session. Besides, the minister had obtained for his other son, Adam, a situation in the banking house of Sir William Forbes, Bart., through the kind offices of Mr. Thomas Kennedy of Dunure, also one of the minister’s parishioners. With a view, therefore, to completing John’s studies and preparing him for the ministry, upon which old Mr. Thomson had now more and more set his heart, seeing that his eldest son had abandoned it for the law, it was arranged that the three brothers should lodge together in Edinburgh. John was accordingly in November 1793 entered at the University of Edinburgh under Professors Daizell and Hill, and committed to the care of his brother Thomas, ‘to be coached for his classes’; but whether the tutor was easy, or the pupil dull, not much progress seems at first to have been made, as in a letter dated 13th November of that year, Thomas, writing to his father as to the welfare of ‘the boys,’ complains that he has had some ‘difficulty to force John to exert his strength.’ This elicits from the old man a characteristic reply, in which encouragement rather than reproof is the dominating note accompanied with affectionate solicitude for his children’s comfort. ‘My dear Jock, I have received accounts of you, and I hope soon to hear from yourself. I have not the smallest doubt that a continued application will make everything easy to you, and that your success will increase with your pleasure.’ How wisely the qualification of the ‘accounts’ he has received is passed over, so that ‘Jock’ is left oblivious of their purport, whether they were good or bad! while the inference as to difficulties being overcome by ‘continued application’ must have stimulated the laziest youth with any conscience to renewed exertion. Then the letter winds up with a catechism, prompted doubtless by good Mrs. Thomson, as to their victuals ;—how they breakfasted, dined, and supped; what clothing they were wearing, etc. etc., and warning them against the dangers of draughts, cold feet, and damp clothes!

The three young men, Thomas, Adam, and John, had established themselves in lodgings in Hamilton’s Entry, Bristo Street, owned by a Mr. Shepherd, described as ‘a civil, handy fellow.’ But though poor, and in humble quarters, they were fortunate in having the entrée to the best society Edinburgh could afford. Lady Hailes manifested her regard for her old minister’s Sons by having them frequently at her fine country residence of New Hailes, near Musselburgh, when their professional engagements allowed. Thus in the early part of November 1793 Thomas mentioned: ‘We all walked out to New Hailes on Saturday last. Mr. Ferguson arrived there on Sunday. I returned to town with him in the evening; the boys on Monday in Lady Hailes’ coach.’ Again, in a letter dated 27th December 1793, Thomas informs his father: ‘John and I have been holding our Christmas at New Hailes. Everybody is employed in feasting and making merry.’ A glorious place it was for ‘the boys’ for other things besides ‘feasting and merry-making,’ though these would not be despised. The magnificent library of books gathered within its walls by Lord Hailes must have been a literary treasure-house for the growing antiquarian tastes of the young advocate; while John must have found in the pictures which still adorn its walls something to admire and study.

That by this time John had profited by his father’s counsel, and had begun to settle down to his tasks, is shown by a letter from Thomas in which he says: ‘John’s Latin lessons begin to be a good deal easier than at first, and the whole now sits lighter on him.’ ‘I think,’ he continues, ‘he will in a short time acquire habits of close application.’ Eventually he proved to be a diligent enough student; made the acquisition of a competent knowledge of literature, and specially devoted a large portion of his time and attention to philosophy and science, his readings in this direction being wide and varied.

But Mr. Shepherd’s lodging in Hamilton’s Entry was not a mere cell of study and penance. Social and intellectual enjoyment found within its four walls a hearty welcome, and the long winter nights were often brightened by gatherings of young kindred spirits, whose aspirations were, like those of Thomas, to the prizes of the legal profession. Hamilton’s Entry was, in fact, a rendezvous’ of many of the younger men then at the Bar, or qualifying for that distinction, many of whom afterwards rose to eminence. Among others that might be named there were Francis Jeffrey, William Erskine (afterwards Lord Kinnedder), William Clerk, and Walter Scott. There these young aspirants to fame read German together, and no doubt compared notes on that discursive reading to which they—and especially Scott—were all addicted. From the interesting Memoir of Thomas Thomson by Cosmo Innes, published by the Bannatyne Club, it appears that Scott found the lodging in Hamilton’s Entry ‘an agreeable retreat from the dull office in George Square, and liked especially to steal away there to breakfast on Sunday mornings.’ John Thomson used to speak with delight half a century afterwards of the conversations of Scott and his brother Thomas, in which he assisted as a listener, at these gay Sunday breakfasts in Bristo Street.

Naturally of a retiring disposition, John appears at first to have had a difficulty in accommodating himself to the highly intellectual atmosphere in which his brother moved. He felt like a man out of his depth, and occasional longings for his colour-box and his music would no doubt obtrude themselves on his Latin and other studies. For him music had great attractions. He played the flute well, and a desire to be possessed of a violin and to be able to perform on it had seized him. When his brother’s companions were busy discussing the politics or literature of the day, John no doubt felt himself a ‘nobody’ among them, and he, honest soul, would probably have been glad to solace himself with a tune, or, in quiet, to have worked over some favourite landscape.

But these luxuries had sometimes to be foregone. The limited income of the minister could ill afford excessive demands; for pinching and paring were necessary to keep the young men at college. Once, in a letter by the young advocate—26th February 1797—to the minister of Dailly, acknowledging receipt of a sum of money to assist ‘the boys’ at their studies, he says: ‘John has for the present relinquished his scheme of buying a fiddle, and has patriotically contributed the money to the Exigencies of the State ‘—that is, of their joint purse—not at that time, we fear, over well plenished, ‘which,’ he continues, ‘will, I hope, save us from making further demands upon you at present.’ But more important matters were in hand than fiddle-playing; and the future minister did well to ‘relinquish’ it just then. Though too young to keep step in conversation with his brother’s companions, his modest position as an attentive ‘listener’ no doubt exerted an important influence in the formation of his character, and certainly he fully appreciated the advantages of being admitted into such a circle. Scott himself used to say: ‘Frank Jeffrey is a wonderful man; he reminds me of the Princess in the fairy tale of "The Well at the World’s End," for he never opens his mouth without diamonds and rubies dropping out of it’; and of Scott the same, it will be remembered, was said by Captain Hall, ‘That his mouth he cannot open without giving out something worth hearing, and all so simply, good-naturedly, and naturally.’

That Thomson had powers of expression of no common kind in spite of his modesty we do not require to say. As a member of the Dialectic Society connected with the University, to which he was admitted in January 1799, he evinced a lively interest in its proceedings, and contributed in that same year at least one paper. It was an essay entitled the Poems of Orpheus, ‘Orpheus of Highwaymen’ being a title popularly given to John Gay on account of his famous play the ‘Beggar’s Opera,’ which, according to Sir John Fielding, was never represented ‘without creating an additional number of thieves.’

During the years John Thomson remained at college, both at Glasgow and Edinburgh, he had but little time to spare for painting. In the summer months, however, in the vacation, he assiduously pursued his favourite study, sketching and painting from Nature; and in the course of his last session in Edinburghwhether with or without the approval of his worthy father, we cannot say—he took a month’s lessons under Alexander Nasmyth, a Scotch landscapist of no mean merit, and father of Patrick Nasmyth, whose pictures are even more celebrated as works of art.

On attaining his twenty-first year he had practically completed his studies for the ministry, and was duly licensed on 17th July 1799 by the Presbytery of Ayr as a preacher of the Gospel. His father, unfortunately, did not survive to witness his younger son’s admission to the calling he had from his infancy predetermined for him, having died on the 19th February previous.

Young Thomson had not long to wait for a charge. Strong influence was brought to bear on the Crown, with whom lay the patronage of Dailly, and he was presented by George III. to his father’s place as minister of the Parish. His ordination by the Presbytery took place on 24th April 1800. Though barely of age to be eligible for so important an office, he appears to have been equal to its duties, if we may judge from a letter written at this time by Mr. George Cranstoun, afterwards Lord Corehouse, to his brother Thomas, in which he describes John as ‘having talents more than equal to the situation; though I believe, scarcely any other young man at his age, and with so little previous study, would have been qualified for so serious a charge. He must preach next Sunday from that text: "Let him that hath no sin among you throw the first stone."’

If early initiated into the cares of the ministry, Thomson early sought and obtained the assistance of a helpmeet.

Within a year after his ordination the young minister bad courted and gained the affections of Miss Isabella Ramsay, the eldest daughter of the minister of the adjoining parish of Kirkmichael. They were shortly afterwards married (7th July 1801). Miss Ramsay undoubtedly was of a good stock, and by her exemplary courtesy to all with whom she came in contact, and by her thrifty household management, did much to keep up the traditional good name of the Dailly manse. Her father, the Rev. John Ramsay, died shortly before the marriage. He was a man of much shrewdness, and though a minister by profession, was among the first who gave themselves to farming enterprise in the district. He formed, and was the first President of, the Carrick Farmers’ Society, and largely stimulated the agricultural improvement of what had hitherto been a rather backward part of Ayrshire. His advice to John Thomson after his ordination contains some pawky sagacity ‘which it may not be out of place to repeat here. ‘John,’ he said, ‘I was your father’s friend, and now I am your friend, and I gie ye a word o’ advice which ye mauna tak ill. First, keep aye the fear o’ God; second, keep aye your feet on the crown o’ the causeway; and third, do your duty, sir, and ne’er speir what the folks say o’ ye.’

Opinion in the parish seems to have differed in respect to the young minister’s observance of the latter part of Mr. Ramsay’s advice; for while it was clear he did not condescend to ask what his people were saying about him, bad he been open to listen, he might have found that not a few were thinking he was not doing his duty, or, at all events, if he could not be charged with neglect of duty, they thought he was taking up his attention with occupations not usually engaged in by a minister of the Gospel. Reminiscences of these days are still current among the parishioners of Dailly, and from one whose professional work takes him much among them, we learn that he was frequently to be seen with his sketch-book or easel in the woods of Bargany, Kilkerran, or Daiquharn. Where there is a will there is generally found the way, and the study of Nature in Thomson’s case impelled him, in spite of what might be said or thought about it, to prosecute his artistic propensities with increasing zest. Outdoor sketching and indoor painting, alternating with ministerial duties to a large,

widely-scattered, and populous parish, left no spare time for idleness, at all events. He might be seen sitting for hours before an old tree at Maxweltown, or by the side of the Girvan water; but the Dailly people could not understand it. Such devotion to painting pictures showed conclusively that he had what they called ‘a bee in his bonnet’; and some of them at least formed the opinion that a minister who painted pictures and played on the fiddle was not quite orthodox, and could be no safe spiritual guide for them. A few actually left the church, and travelled Sunday after Sunday to the Burgher Kirk in Maybole—seven miles from Dailly—in quest of what they deemed more wholesome spiritual fare.

Notwithstanding this, however, and the fact that he was early involved in the cares and anxieties attendant upon a young family, Thomson’s enthusiasm for Art rather increased than abated. He painted, we are told, a considerable number of pictures during these first few years, most of which were distributed as gifts among his friends. Nor did he confine himself to landscape; several portraits of more intimate acquaintances which he attempted testified, it is said, to his accuracy of perception and ability to delineate the human form divine.

We have, unfortunately, not been able to verify this statement by our own observation. In all probability these early essays at portraiture, if they have not perished, have been lost sight of. If still in existence, they are, we fear, beyond hope of identification. He himself, it is said, used to express the wish that he had preserved these early specimens of his style in portrait-painting.

One amusing story is told, illustrative of his strong artistic proclivity, which we cannot refrain from recording.

In those days the half-yearly communions were the occasion of special demonstration in every parish, and the ‘Holy Fair’ of Burns describes with graphic pen the scenes with which these occasions were too much identified, especially in Ayrshire.

Usually several ministers from neighbouring parishes were engaged to take a part at those sacramental observances, and as the crowd of country people who made it a duty to attend was often greater than the church could accommodate, ‘a tent' [This was an outside pulpit of wood, with a covering as a protection against the weather, not unlike a ‘Punch and Judy’ show.] was fitted up in the churchyard, where preaching and exhortation could be carried on while the communion was being dispensed in the church. On this particular occasion the communion was being dispensed in the neighbouring parish of Barr, and Mr. Thomson was present. Being the youngest minister of the Presbytery, it devolved on him to preach first from the ‘tent’; and having done so he sat down and gave place to an older minister. Looking round upon the rustic congregation, his artistic eye was arrested by a strikingly picturesque face and figure from the hills; that of a venerable old man, whose lyart haffets, [Long grey locks] light-blue coat, with large brass buttons, knee-breeches, buckles on his shoes, and quaint old three-cornered hat, proclaimed him one of a former century. The temptation was too strong to be resisted, even on so solemn an occasion, and Thomson’s pencil and paper were at once in requisition, and he was soon engrossed sketching the physiognomy of douce old John Allan. But if not observed by the congregation, the sketching had not escaped the eye of some of the members of his Presbytery. Ever ready, then as now, to rebuke the erring and to correct the faults of backsliders, these gentlemen gathered together in council after the service and solemnly discussed the grave impropriety of their young brother, and though reluctant to make a ‘case’ of it, the oldest of their number was deputed to take an early opportunity of ‘dealing’ with him privately. This opportunity occurred shortly afterwards in the manse of Kirkoswald, at the next communion. Here the old man proceeded, with grave face and solemn voice, to administer a suitable admonition and rebuke, all which the Reverend John, listening in silence, appeared to receive in meek submission. With downcast eyes fixed on his nervous fingers carelessly toying with his pencil at the table, and giving only an occasional shy glance at the face of his faithful mentor, he waited patiently to the end. The old gentleman, thinking, no doubt, he had made a favourable impression, and would be in the happy position of reporting to the members of Presbytery the penitence of the culprit and a satisfactory conclusion of the case, was highly pleased at Thomson’s behaviour. But what was his horror when, at the close of his remarks, his supposed penitent held up before his astonished eyes a thumb-nail sketch, showing a laughable likeness of the old gentleman’s face, and smilingly asked, ‘What auld cankered carl do ye think that is?’

But the minister’s sins of commission were not confined to painting. We have already referred to his musical tastes. He had not only when at college acquired a fiddle, but he had practised it with such assiduity that he was quite an adept, and would spend hours at it in the long winter evenings, to the great delight of his little household. Both the violin and violincello he played with wonderful skill. Among the more straight-laced of his parishioners their young minister’s talents in this respect went for less than nothing. They looked upon it as a scandal to his profession that so much of his time should be spent on what they considered frivolous amusements, and several of the elders were moved to wait upon him on the subject. They did so, and were most courteously received by the minister and his wife. Having explained the object of their visit, they proceeded apologetically to refer to the rumours that were floating about in the parish, urging that it was not so much the ‘big gaucy fiddle’ they objected to as the ‘wee sinfu’ fiddle’! Thomson heard them good-naturedly, and then asked

them if they would like to hear a tune. Though not quite prepared for this, the elders made no objections to the proposal; the violincello was brought into the parlour, and he played a selection of fine old Scotch airs with such pathos and feeling that, as a granddaughter of his has told us, they were fairly melted to tears, and so impressed with what they called its ‘holy hum,’ no more objections were ever raised to his playing either the ‘big gaucy fiddle’ or the ‘wee sinfu" one!

Five years of busy active life had now passed over his head as minister of his native parish. He was himself happy, and he endeavoured to make others happy as well. He was blessed with a loving wife and a young family, consisting of two boys and an infant daughter. All his family ties and affections were bound up with the people among whom he had been born and brought up, and over whom he had since his father’s death had the spiritual oversight; while the familiar scenes of many a sketching expedition o’er hill and dale, by running brook or pastoral meadow, were all associated with his earliest years, and doubtless kept a strong and loving hold of his heart.

But the happy days of his early manhood amid the sylvan loveliness of the Girvan Water came to a close ere long.

His old friends in Edinburgh had not forgotten the ‘listener,’ and took the first opportunity of recalling him to the capital. Through the death of the Rev. William Bennet, minister of Duddingston, a vacancy occurred in that parish in 1805. The presentation to the benefice lay with the principal heritor, the Marquis of Abercorn, for whom Mr. Thomas Scott, Writer to the Signet, and brother of Walter Scott, then acted as factor for the Duddingston estates. Thomas Thomson, John’s elder brother, and Walter Scott being fast friends, the latter easily persuaded his brother to use his influence with the Marquis on behalf of the young minister. Accordingly, towards the end of the same year, the church and parish of Duddingston were offered to and accepted by Mr. Thomson, and the usual formal proceedings consequent on such a step were at once begun.


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